I’ll never forget how my friend Carolyn introduced me at a backyard party a few years ago:
“This is Brian Alvey. He invented blogging.”
I immediately corrected her:
“I didn’t invent blogging. I perfected it.”
I’ve told that story on stage many times. While it might sound conceited, there is a lot of truth in the statement. Jason and I weren’t the first people to build a blog network. But we did create a really efficient one that grew quickly and was acquired for a lot of money in less than two years.
I gave Jason some grief when I interviewed him on the 500th episode of This Week In Startups. I asked him if he’d ever had an original product idea. He was noticeably defensive, but if you name anything that Jason has a hand in building, it has always been a reaction to someone else’s product.
Weblogs, Inc. was a better Gawker Network. We had no porn or gossip. We were very fundable and very acquirable. We had the benefit of looking at a successful competitor, keeping all the good and skipping all the bad.
Jason’s LAUNCH Festival was a better DEMO conference. His Open Angel Forum was a better Keiretsu Forum. Silicon Alley Reporter was a better AlleyCat News. Engadget was a better Gizmodo. Mahalo was Wikipedia with ads. Netscape was a better Digg.
In startups, you are either a first mover, a fast follower or a slow follower. To be fair, first movers have some advantages. If you have a product with high switching costs, then it will be hard for a second mover to steal your customers. If customers trust your brand, your competitors have to overcome risk aversion. Uber was a first mover. Lyft came out three years later and is a fraction of Uber’s size.
Depending on the kind of market or product though, fast followers often have more advantages. Creating a product for the first time is costly. Imagine anything you’ve ever built. If you built the same thing a second time, couldn’t you do it faster, cheaper and better? Of course you could!
If you can follow someone else’s blueprint and avoid waste, you can enter a market at a fraction of what it cost the first mover. Unless the market leader is a drug with a patent, imitation always requires less time, effort and capital.
The failure rate of first movers is 47%. The failure rate of fast followers is only 8%.
Apple didn’t invent smartphones or tablets. They perfected them.
Facebook didn’t invent the social network. Google didn’t invent the search engine. Kickstarter didn’t invent crowd funding. WordPress didn’t invent blog publishing software.
All of those companies wisely followed market pioneers and stole their crowns.